Pamela Fagan Hutchins - Animal Lover Who Writes Three Books at a Time
Pamela Fagan Hutchins loves to jog with her dogs and goat, have yoga sessions with her husband and enjoy life while writing awesome romantic mysteries. One of her books, Heaven to Betsy, is the 2015 WINNER in the USA Best Book Awards for Cross Genre Fiction and today she is giving us some behind-the-scenes insights in the creation of this great read. Hutchins also reveals how she creates her characters, how she manages to work on three books at a time and which male character in her books is most like her husband.
Tell us what Heaven to Betsy is all about
Heaven to Betsy is a romantic mystery, the seventh book in the What Doesn’t Kill You series, but the first featuring Emily Bernal Phelps as the protagonist. Emily—a newly pregnant and recently dumped rodeo queen-turned-paralegal—tucks tail back to her conservative hometown seeking privacy she doesn’t get. But when she and her enigmatic new boss Jack take the case of an illegal immigrant who is beaten to death in jail, Emily becomes obsessed with finding and protecting the woman’s six-year old daughter, a witness to human trafficking and murder, no matter the cost to herself.
What books are on your nightstand?
I’m currently loving Jana DeLeon and Aimee Gilchrist.
The tone of Heaven to Betsy is more lighthearted than your previous books, why the change?
Maybe it’s her blonde hair (I think I can get away with saying that, since I’m a blonde?)! Emily is, on the surface, a lighter protagonist than Katie or Michele. But when you get below the surface, her issues are just as heavy, and the mysteries are, if anything, more violent and scary.
Animals feature prominently in the book, are you an animal lover yourself?
I am a HUGE animal lover. I grew up with dogs, cats, horses, sheep, and hamsters. As an adult, you can add pigs, goats, cows, guinea pigs, and rabbits. Right now we have three rescue dogs, one cow, and seven goats, one of whom we bottle raised when his mother died, so he’s really a yard goat/pet. In writing, I like how an animal can deepen our understanding of a character. They can add humor, tension, and emotion to scenes. Animals rock. ;-)
Above: A picture of Peyton the goat, on “take your goat to work day.”
Your characters are all very vivid, do you incorporate any elements of people you know?
Some of my characters are people I know. Collin is my brother IRL. Ava is my best friend IRL. Emily is three friends spliced together. I have a new character, Maggie, who is compiled from friends. My husband thinks he is every lead male in my books, but he’s wrong, by the way. Once he dreamed he had a fist fight with Bart (a romantic rival for Katie in Leaving Annalise), because he believes he is Nick. He is probably most like Adrian in the Michele mysteries, however, which is tough, because Adrian gets killed in the second chapter.
Did any real events inspire you to tackle the subject of the book?
The underlying plot of Heaven to Betsy is completely made up, but thematically it touches on issues that are important to me and were very much in the news while I was writing: immigration, adoption, and religion. I wanted a plot that made readers care about those issues no matter what “side” of them they came out on.
What has the response from readers been like to Heaven to Betsy so far?
Man, the reviews for Heaven to Betsy are stunning. It’s also the first novel I’ve written that has won a national award. Going for Kona was a finalist and Finding Harmony was a quarter-finalist, so I’ve been working my way up the ladder! I guess the most gratifying thing about readers loving Emily is that Heaven to Betsy is the first novel I’ve written since my novels began being published (I wrote the others over many, many years), and I had to do it on a much shorter timeline. I’d become a professional, career writer, and I had to step it up!
Emily is a strong, independent woman, but has flaws that make her relatable. What is it that makes a flawed heroine so relatable?
Gosh, I think that most of us know our own imperfections/flaws intimately. We may think other people are perfect, at times, but truly we know they aren’t. I think we need real, authentic, flawed, three-dimensional heroines for stories, to give them heart and believability. I try to create protagonists, like Emily, whose flaws are ultimately understandable and forgivable, even if a reader doesn’t share those particular flaws. Notice I said I try. Not every reader will agree that I’ve succeeded. But I pull from real life—my own, or those close to me—when putting together characters, their flaws, their motivations, and their strengths, because I care more about getting character right than possibly any other element of my writing.
What is it that draws you to Texas as a setting for your stories?
Texas has a rich history of strength and independence. It’s also geographically and culturally diverse with metropolitan cities, tiny towns, beach, desert, mountains, forest, prairies, and a little of the Old West, too. It’s a lightning rod for opinions, too—for perceptions and misperceptions—and I wanted to play around with those. There’s also a part of me that wants to enlighten those perceptions, by gently showing the Texas I know juxtaposed against the Texas others outside the state (or even inside it, sometimes) think they know. Texas has an incredible amount of material to offer for a novelist, and I love it.
What kind of research did you have to do for the characters and setting of Heaven to Betsy?
This was a research-intensive project, which made it more fun for me. As a lawyer, I didn’t practice criminal, family, or immigration law, although I took classes in them and had to pass them as subjects on the bar exam. So I did a lot of research to make sure I was accurate in these areas. From a setting perspective, I wanted a location close to the US border with Mexico that had geological and cultural elements that fit my vision, as a counterpoint to Amarillo, Texas, the other main setting in the novel. I picked Tularosa, New Mexico and the nearby Mescalero Apache Reservation.
Emily featured as a minor character in the Katie mysteries, what made you decide to give her a separate book?
My intention as a novelist is to create strong female protagonists who can carry both lead and supporting roles. Emily is one of those characters, Katie is another. Ava and Michele both appear in the Emily mysteries, and they will each be leads in future novels. Well, actually, Michele already is the lead in one of her own, but she has two more coming. Katie also has supporting roles in the novels other than her own. I have other protagonists in the works as well. Laura, who we first meet in the Emily mysteries, and Maggie, who we first meet in the second Michele mystery. For each protagonist, I storyboard three mysteries that give the lead a chance for personal growth and a little romance over the span of the books. Honestly, I do this because I enjoy changing it up. It allows me to continue to play with my imaginary friends, but I get to have a lot of friends. :-)
Can you describe your typical writing day to us?
I work on the business of publishing in the morning, and I write in the afternoons. Each novel starts with storyboarding verbally with my husband, Eric. I let that gel in my head, sometimes for months or even years. I outline it, at a very high level. Then my writing starts as a recording, which I generally do while walking or driving. My assistant—also a romantic mystery novelist—transcribes it (and makes her own suggestions), and I rewrite from there. I’m normally working on three books at a time: storyboarding one, drafting one, and rewriting another. I make sure to leave plenty of time in my writing day for jogging with my dogs and goat (yes, the goat jogs), and for yoga with my husband.
What are you working on right now?
My next novel is tentatively titled Going by the Book, it’s #8 in the What Doesn’t Kill You Series, featuring Michele for the second time. Michele Lopez Hanson retreats to the country for peace and quiet while her teenagers are away for the summer, hoping to learn how to be alone in the wake of the death of her husband. But when her elderly neighbor Gidget—a Houston art gallery owner whom Michele is assisting in writing her memoirs—dies and leaves everything to Michele except a bequest to a daughter no one knew existed, it seems like half the state shows up: some to help, some to contest the will, and others to make sure the mystery daughter is never found alive.
Where can our readers find more of your books?
My books are available in ebook, paperback, and audio. The best place to find my books is to start at my website, where you can then navigate to the sales site of your choice. You can also find my books in libraries and bookstores. If they don’t carry them, they can order them for you.